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Theis, Cunningham get high marks in state Supreme Court race

Illinois Supreme Court Candidates, left to right, Mary Jane Theis, Aurelia Pucinski and Joy Cunningham meet with Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board Tuesday, January 24, 2012. | Scott Stewart~Sun-Times

In the hot race for Illinois Supreme Court, incumbent Mary Jane Theis and challenger Appellate Justice Joy Cunningham are getting the highest ratings so far from some of the bar groups who evaluate candidates for judge.

The Chicago Bar Association found both women “highly qualified’ to serve on the state’s highest court.

The Chicago Council of Lawyers found Theis “highly qualified” and gave Cunningham its second-highest rating, “well qualified.”

“‘Well qualified’ is a very good rating. In terms of this field, Joy Cunningham and Mary Jane Theis are certainly very strong candidates,” said Council President Gabriel Fuentes.

Appellate Justice Aurelia Pucinski, who spent 12 years as Clerk of the Circuit Court, was found “qualified” by the Chicago Bar, but “not recommended” by the Chicago Council.

A fourth candidate in the March 20 Democratic primary, Thomas Flannigan, was found “not qualified” or “not recommended” by both groups.

About a dozen lawyers’ groups in Chicago rate candidates for judge and those ratings are expected out in the next few weeks.

The most highly-watched race will be for the state’s highest court.

Theis, a longtime appellate justice and former public defender was appointed by the other Supreme Court justices to replace retiring Justice Thomas Fitzgerald in 2010.

The Chicago Bar said, “Justice Theis is highly respected for her legal knowledge and experience, outstanding temperament, and unquestioned integrity.”

The Council said of Theis, “Judge Theis … is praised as a scholar who both teaches and publishes. Her integrity is unquestioned and [she] has an excellent temperament. She was patient as both a trial judge and an appellate judge. She is fair and even-handled to all parties appearing before her. She is also praised for … opinions that are well-reasoned and well-written.”

Cunningham, a former general counsel at Northwestern Memorial Hospital who touts her private-sector experience, now serves on the state appellate court.

Cunningham was the first black woman president of the Chicago Bar Association, which called her, “hardworking and well regarded for her legal knowledge and broad range of practice and judicial experience.”

The Council said Cunningham “is praised for her work ethic and temperament. She reportedly asks good questions during oral argument and writes well-reasoned opinions.”

Cunningham won the endorsement of the Independent Voters of Illinois. Theis has the strong support of Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

The Chicago Bar said of Pucinski. “During her brief tenure on the Illinois Appellate Court, Justice Pucinski has heard a number of major civil and criminal appeals and has written 14 opinions. Justice Pucinski’s management experience, knowledge of administrative law, and commitment to public service would serve her well on the Illinois Supreme Court.”

But the Council said of Pucinski “Many respondents questioned her knowledge of the law, although most praised her temperament. Some respondents were concerned that as a trial judge she continued to play an advocacy role and questioned whether she could be impartial.”

Noting that leaders of some of the bar groups have donated to Theis, Pucinski said Tuesday, “I think there’s as much politics in the bar ratings as anything else.

Both bar groups said Flannigan does not have the experience yet to sit on the state Supreme Court.

He disputes that.

“Some people they found qualified in the past turned out not-so-well; some they found ‘not qualified’ turned out to be excellent judges,” Flannigan said.

The winner of the Democratic primary will face Republican Judge James Riley in the fall. The Chicago Bar found Riley qualified. The Council found him ‘not qualified.’